DC isn’t exactly a cheap place for dining out. If you’re looking to save more, here’s our top eight tips!
Order lunch instead of dinner. Lunch is almost always cheaper than dinner – and the portions at most DC restaurants aren’t that much different. As an added bonus, some of DC’s most popular restaurants can be easier to get into for lunch than for dinner.
Order food at the bar. Some (though not all) DC restaurants will offer a special menu where you can food at a discount if you eat at the bar. If you don’t mind standing or sitting on bar stools, this can be a great way to try out a restaurant’s offerings.
Save the drinks for happy hour. We all know that the cost of one beer or glass of wine can be as much as a six-pack or a bottle that can be bought at your local store. Our recommendation: take advantage of a happy hour at a local bar near the restaurant before dining. InTheCapital’s guide to DC happy hours is a good place to start.
We do have one exception to this suggestion. If the restaurant you’re going to is known for a particular drink you can’t get anywhere else, then it’s worth the splurge.
Split the dessert – or eat it elsewhere. Like drinks, desserts can quickly add up on your restaurant bill. If you’re a group of 4 or more, splitting one dessert only adds a slight cost to your bill. However, if you’re wanting a dessert for yourself, your best value will be at home. If you don’t have dessert options on hand, you can easily pick up cookies, ice cream, and other sweet treats from your local grocery store on the way home.
Choose meals wisely. Meats and seafood will almost always be more expensive than poultry. Poultry will almost always be more expensive than vegetables or starch. That being said, a meat or seafood entrée will be less expensive if a entrée salad or pasta dish leaves you hungry for an appetizer or dessert. We recommend ordering what makes the most sense to your budget – and your taste buds, too. Choose dishes that you can’t make for yourself or that are among the restaurant’s specialities. This way, you’ll be more satisfied with your dining experience and less likely to spend more on food later.
Calculate the value of appetizers and small plates. When dining out, appetizers may seem like a better deal than ordering an entrée. Sometimes, though, ordering more than one appetizer for yourself can actually be more expensive than one of the entrées. Always ask your server the portion size of appetizers before ordering to ensure this doesn’t happen to you.
Likewise, small plates (tapas) can add up quickly. Generally speaking, you’ll get better value for your tapas if you’re splitting them among a larger group. (In fact, some of our least expensive meals out at restaurants in DC have been in this type of circumstance.) If you’re splitting your tapas with one person, you likely will not get the same value.
Additionally, not all small plates are created equal. At Ambar, for example, we were full after one “small” plate, but we are rarely full after one small plate at Zaytinya. We generally start with one or two small plates and, if we’re still hungry, we’ll add another. That way, we’re not stuck with a plate that we’re too stuffed to finish.
Know your specials. Many of DC’s more expensive restaurants offer a prix-fixe menu on certain days and times. A good place to start is Girl Meets Food’s Guide to Prix Fixe Dining in DC. (Be sure to contact the restaurant in advance, though, as options may have changed.)
DC’s Restaurant Week (held twice a year during off-peak months) can also offer great value at more expensive restaurants if you plan in advance. However, it’s always good to check the regular menu against an establishment’s Restaurant Week offerings. Some places will offer greater values than others as DCist always reminds us.
Know your deals. If there’s a restaurant you’ve wanted to check out for a while, but your budget doesn’t permit going yet, it’s always worthwhile to subscribe to the restaurant’s mailing list and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Some DC restaurants will send out special promotions this way that will not be advertised otherwise. There are other ways to get deals at restaurants (such as LivingSocial or Groupon), but we think it’s better to go directly through the restaurant as restrictions and other terms tend to be clearer that way.
What are your favorite ways to save when dining out in DC?